Academic home pages: Reconstruction of the self
First Monday

Academic home pages: Reconstruction of the self by Lesley Thoms and Mike Thelwall

Abstract
Previous literature within the postmodern movement typically finds the Internet to be a tool for surveillance and restriction. This is particularly identified in the personal homepages of academics, where the university is considered to marginalise staff through the coercive governing of their identity construction. Using a Foucauldian framework in which to analyse twenty academic homepages, this study looks specifically at identity construction on the Internet via the differences of link inclusion between academics whose homepages have been university–constructed and those whose homepages have been self–constructed, both dependent and independent of the university site. A Foucauldian discourse analysis identifies the marginalisation of academics in all conditions, wherein discursive positions were typically those of disempowerment. A typology of homepages and hence identities of academics is proposed based on the Web sites examined, concluding that whether the homepage is constructed by the academic or by the university, the identities of the individual are ultimately lost to the governmentality of the university.

Contents

Introduction
Method
Reliability and validity
Reflexivity
Results and discussion
Conclusions

 


 

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Introduction

Traditional empirical psychology defines identity as singular; a normative label to categorise individuals based on various personal constructs. In this sense, a person is defined by repertoires of their intrinsic traits. However, there is an alternative approach to understanding identity. Essentially, the social constructionist considers rational deduction to be continually constructed out of the culturally and historically tainted discourses that are available in a given period, from which the self–fashioning of personal identities arise (Jackson and Carter, 2000). Put more simply, a person’s identities are continually fluxing constructions that arise out of current discourses during communications with other people (Burr, 2003), where experiences and rationalities of the self and of the world are reproduced and are simultaneously reproductive in human communities (Shotter and Gergen, 1989).

Within a Foucauldian framework, through the devices or ‘technologies’ made available by society’s ideologies, the social construction of personal identity is made possible (Foucault, 1988). The Internet is often acknowledged to represent one such technology of the self (Aycock, 1995) and is widely considered to be the most active of technologies to fundamentally alter the nature and possibility of communities, and thus alter identities of the self (Berthon, et al., 2000). More explicitly, the growth of the Internet has provided a gateway that connects individuals to a diversity of others (Gergen, 2001; Pini, et al., 2004). With this potential for increased closeness — albeit digital — the possibility for identity reconstruction is ever present (McNamee, 1996), permitting the cycling through of many flexible selves (Turkle, 1995).

The different narratives in each technology, practice and programme that individuals pass through construct different subjectivities. The person is therefore in constant momentum, passing through different practices that subjectify him/her in different ways (Rose, 1996). Human beings therefore encompass multiple selves, each constructed in multiple practices, rhizomically interconnected and continuously under reconstruction as the connections expand in the ‘socially saturated world’ (Gergen, 1991). From such movement, ‘the self’ is destabilised, like Derrida’s deconstruction of the self, and Foucault’s disappearance of the author — essentially the human being is a terminal in a complex system of interconnected images throughout different paradigms (Gergen, 1996). With the rate of these fluxing subjectivities on the Internet, people are in a constant state of protean (Lifton, 1999) or nomadic (Brown, 1996) wandering. Such nomadic subjects construct and reconstruct their identities from various discursive positions that are encountered, and on the Internet this identity and subjectivity construction expands ever more rapidly.

In non–virtual worlds, discursive positions can often be disempowering and limit possibilities of change or to behave as one wants, but in a virtual world the Internet can sanction self–presentation by the autonomy it provides from traditional time and space barriers (Foster, 1997). For example, the personal homepage typically draws on established print ways of self–presentation, such as curriculum vitas, or advertisements of the focal self (Miller, 1995). Indeed, it has been noted that there is very little variation in the emergence of identity over the Internet, however, and the personal homepage is a tool which is simultaneously the construction of the author. Thus an author’s homepage signifies the identities that they have constructed and all the implications attached to these, for which he/she is responsible (Foucault, 1977). The content of the personal homepage is legitimised through publication, which in turn legitimises the identities that have been constructed by the author in that particular period (Chandler and Roberts–Young, 1998).

Taking the metaphor of the personal homepage as literal, its décor, fixtures and fittings are representational of the constructed identity. According to Turkle (1995), its different rooms (or sites) are located within the world–stretching connected nodes, yet are accrued and stored under one address (via a process of bricolage, see Chandler and Roberts–Young, 1998 who elaborate on this term in relation to this paper). These hyperlinked ‘rooms’ are extensions to the identity of the author to aid in its construction, since such rooms are considered to be of some personal or social importance to the individual author (Erickson, 1996). Thus the personal homepage and its outlinks portray the author’s personal perception of salient people, issues and pursuits, and therefore portrays the social logic that gives the visitor the opportunity to meet with the author’s multiple personas.

From an information science perspective, link frequencies have been considered to indicate various features of a Web site, from topic similarity (Kleinberg, 1999) to business (Park and Nam, 2002) and social (Garrido and Halavais, 2003; Park, 2003) connections. It has also been noted in this literature that some links are for educational purposes rather or for communicative functions (Thelwall, 2003). However, from a more constructionist perspective, it can be argued that each link presented — whether intended for communication or not — illustrates the evolution of virtual communities amongst authors (Rheingold, 1995) and therefore the evolution of the focal self. Identity emerges from whom a person knows, or is associated with (Turkle, 1995) and so any link can be considered significant no matter what the author’s intention; significant in the sense that selves can develop and can be maintained through the very presence of these links (Miller, 1995).

The homepage can become a locus for the cyberself (Miller, 1995) to experiment with the construction and reconstructions of subjectivities via link inclusion (Turkle, 1995). Despite this seemingly positive perspective of an all–empowering tool, it must be argued that the Internet can also represent the ideologies of institutions, which in turn can compromise the individual’s autonomy — albeit in a non–obtrusive manner (Brignall, 2002). Although resistance in new forms of subjectivity typically accompanies enforced power (Foucault, 1982), individuals still tend to internalise the conveyed ideology of particular institutions through a process of adaptation to the prevailing norms and ultimately conform to these norms, thus representing ‘citizens’ of a morally coercive society (Lynch, 1985) — at least within that particular time and space.

Rhetorical devices both reflect and reconstruct these mainstream ideologies (Walters, 1996), yet are not necessarily modes of governance to produce dependent subjects; rather they work upon the capacities of persons to act on their own behalf (Cruikshank, 1999). Therefore rhetorical devices govern persons by enlisting them to govern themselves: working through subjectivity and not in its opposition (Rose, 1994). Based on this understanding, the conduct of conduct is to ethically mould a human being’s subjectivities in accordance to the prevailing needs of the social practices that he/she passes through, or links to (Foucault, 1986). For example, official sites could be a device for legitimising the power of an institution; that is for instance, homepages that are constructed in an institution’s Web site can be illustrative of the subtle governance that the institution possesses over the individual author (Aycock, 1995).

Based on this sentiment, individual authors whose homepages reside on an institution’s server may experience the moral obligation to represent their selves in an already established way in order to sustain the status of a responsible member of that virtual community — conceivably an example of social accountability (Shotter, 1984), where personal homepages reflect the rituals of the institution to satisfy the objectives of its employers (Chandler and Roberts–Young, 1998). In the same sense of Bentham’s panoptic–style prison (see Jackson and Carter, 2000 who incorporate this theme in organisational analysis), the Internet can therefore become a tool for surveillance, where the multiple layers of observation result in the unawareness of who is observing whom (Brignall, 2002). In such circumstances, individual authors simultaneously construct and police themselves in the manner that will match the perceived ideologies of the institution at that time.

In an instance where literature shows this to be a consistent theme, academic institutional Web sites have been perceived to marginalise staff through the governing of constructed identities on the Internet (Hawisher and Sullivan, 1999; Hess, 2002). Interestingly, Foucault’s (1980) concept of ‘knowledge is power’ can be identified from the observations made in previous literature, as most homepage creators for academic staff seem to be those with the expertise — this typically being the Webmaster or Web design team. Thus power of identity construction typically lies with the Web experts who can construct the identities of academic staff members in conjunction with the ideology of the university needs. Such needs relate to the advertisements and promotions of the university departments, courses and individual staff via the presence of online student resources and scholarly credentials (Hess, 2002), although this does not seem to be systematic and the personality of the developers can also be expressed (Hine, 2001). Similarly, no release time or compensation for the time spent on staff constructing their own homepages is offered to academics, which allows institutions to construct homepages on behalf of the staff under the illusion of ‘ethically’ correct behaviour (see Foucault, 1986). To summarise this perspective, the homepages that are built on behalf of the faculty are done so apparently legitimately: in the staff’s best interest. However, it can be argued that this is in fact a means of governing the disempowered (Hawisher and Sullivan, 1999).

This governmentality is not isolated to one university; literature has suggested that these constructed cyberselves are simply passed from one university Web site to another once the academic proximally moves institutions (Hess, 2002). Based on this, the uniform portrait photograph, credentials and particularly publications (Harley, 2002) remain ideologically shaped, residing within a different address. Likened to the discursive positions that were mentioned previously, the academic’s cyberself can essentially be seen as a nomadic wander whose construction is reconstructed in ways that satisfy the transitory university. It should be acknowledged however that some staff do in fact create their own homepages as a means of self–presentation. However, according to Hess (2002) such pages may still be retrieved from the university search engine, and therefore may still be exploited as a means of advertisement; display ‘items’ for the university. Pages constructed and maintained by the academic however do appear to contain more multifaceted selves as opposed to the solitary ‘academic self’ via images, links and so forth (Chandler and Roberts–Young, 1998; Miller, 1995).

It is the links on the academic homepage that is of most interest in this particular research; how their frequency and qualities differ between institutional based homepages and self–constructed homepages that are either independent or dependent of the university site. The research is thus interested in the identity construction of staff through the use and disuse of links. In doing so, this study generates a typology of homepages — nonentities, capitulators and sycophants — based on the observed discursive positions of the academics, as articulated both textually and pictorially in relation to the academic institution. Here, discourses appear to involve aspects of ownership, disempowerment and normalisation, from which academics are considered to have both directly and indirectly lost the autonomy of identity construction through the Internet.

 

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Method

Based on the materials used for analysis in this study (i.e. academic homepages) and based on the social constructionist framework within which the analysis derived, qualitative methods were preferred over quantitative approaches as these are more appropriate for textual and symbolic analysis (Burr, 2003). Unlike statistics and other like measures, qualitative methods are typically more context–sensitive and so highlight factors that may be influential in different scenarios. It should be noted however that quantitative analyses are not necessarily dismissed from all social constructionist work; nevertheless, the generalised assumptions or universal truths that are concluded from such analyses are not appropriate for this type of research (Gergen, 1999). In–depth descriptive analysis was therefore undertaken in this study to gain a more valid perspective of the possible reasoning behind link inclusion in academic homepages.

The research was conducted and interpreted using Foucauldian discourse analysis. This enables thorough analysis of power relations through which subjectivities are constructed, via the written text and the more visual material supplied on the sample of personal homepages (Burr, 2003). Foucault himself neither permitted nor gave any methodological structure to which to adhere, as it would assume presidency and thus a position of ‘truth’ (Armstrong, 1997). Indeed, any attempt to construct a unified methodology based on the works of Michel Foucault is viewed as a fruitless pursuit (Gutting, 1994). To compound this impediment, Gilbert, et al. (2003) argue discourse analysis to represent an umbrella term to encapsulate the various ways of analysing and understanding social life (Fairclough, 1992). Although some have attempted to define criteria in which to analyse discursive material (Fairclough, 1992; Carabine, 2001), Burr (2003) argues that there are no specific guidelines in which to direct analysis like there are with methodologies such as conversational analysis.

Whilst acknowledging these controversial issues surrounding Foucauldian discourse analysis, the primary concerns of this study were to identify discursive constructions and positions, locating these in the discourse and identifying the effects of these constructions (Willig, 2001). The sample of personal homepages (n = 20) where such stages of analysis were taken consisted of both male and female academics, from across the countries that constitute the European Union. Academics’ self–constructed homepages were retrieved through random selection from the Geocities directory of personal homepages (n = 8). Personal homepages residing within the university or institute server were obtained via the Google search engine (n = 8), as were those that were constructed and maintained by the individual academic, but were enclosed within the university Web space (n = 4). The self–maintained homepages residing within the university server are used for direct comparison with the remaining categorised Web pages.

 

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Reliability and validity

The reliability and validity of social constructionist research as means of legitimating research findings as universal truths is often disparaged (Kvale, 1995); knowledge is not uncovered neutrally and is thus not incontestable (Burr, 2003). However, some have argued for a reconceptualisation of these terms to better suit the qualitative analysis rather than directly rejecting them as inappropriate (e.g. Mason, 1996). In this light, there has been much advancement to enable social constructionists to legitimately justify their work as both trustworthy and sound (see Wood and Kroger, 2000 for an example). Other than the more rigorous empirical techniques such as inter–rater reliability, there is the member check technique where researchers can validate their interpretations on the basis of the participating individual’s interpretations. However, not only would such an approach prove ineffective in this type of research owing to the possible delayed responses to e–mail (if there were any responses at all), the e–mail would be unsolicited and potentially unethical (Thelwall, 2003) and so this approach was not pursued in this study.

 

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Reflexivity

Although it has been maintained that contacting the Web page authors is not appropriate for this particular research, it must be acknowledged that this lack of action causes a lapse in permitting equal status between the researcher and the researched (Sherrard, 1991). However, since the researcher assumes no authority over the identity construction of the authors, equal status may not necessarily be actively enforced but is personally maintained. Conversely, it is admitted that although this study adopts the social constructionist perspective, it must be argued that the theory is itself a social construction and is taken to be no more than a perspective of social life and its workings. It is not accepted as an authority of reality, nor is it a profound statement of what is true. It is upon this backdrop that the researcher accepts that by way of researching and accounting for the identities on other people’s homepages, their identities are again being reconstructed by the constitutive nature of this discourse (Burr, 2003).

 

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Results and discussion

This section involves the identification of discursive positions of academics in their homepages, generating a taxonomy on the basis of how academic subjectivities are articulated in each homepage and are thus constructed. However, it is necessary to first disclose the reasoning for the components of the taxonomy; that is, the rationale for the chosen themes of nonentity, capitulator and sycophant. As shown below, each theme has been identified from its underlying discourse, relating to governmental issues of ownership, normalisation and disempowerment. The self–constructed and university–constructed personal homepages, compared to the homepages that are self–maintained yet reside on the university server, all demonstrate junctures of these governmental issues. Overall however, the constructed underlying principle is that academic identity is lost; lost through the university server or lost due to the academics’ natural tendency to relinquish their power to the university for reconstructing the self. Thus the Internet is seen to facilitate the process of normalisation and legitimacy of academic institutions. Preceding a more thorough discussion of this, it is imperative to note that the given construct does not stand to represent a universal truth; each theme remains speculative, yet may give insights which with to perceive afresh the phenomenon of personal home pages.

Nonentity

It is hypothesised that the identities of academics whose homepages have been constructed by the university Webmaster or Web design teams have been deprived of individuality; being merely constructed products that have originated from the university assembly line. Those subjectivities that have been constructed are done so in accordance to the model specification of the current ideology, thus the rationalisation that academics’ pre–constructed identities have been lost stands proud.

This reconstruction of the academic self is found from the symbolic analysis undertaken on the university–constructed homepages. Based on this analysis, it has been identified that the academics’ virtual identities are of a subordinate discursive position. Their names, titles and uniform photographs appear secondary to the insignias of the university and of the department. The academics’ credentials are generally far more inconspicuous than the standard format of the homepage. Of all the constructed nonentities, only scholarly profiles are presented in which research interests are confined to brief bullet point lists. Of most importance to the university, however (Harley, 2002), academic publication lists are given considerable space on the homepage. These publications do not solely illustrate the degree of research activity in which the university is engaged (which incidentally is the basis upon which academic institutions are rated), but the publications also represent forms of expertise, and legitimise the expert knowledge and hence the power that the institution appears to produce.

Out of the eight homepages studied, only one included links that were specific to the individual academic’s current self. It is not unusual for the homepages to display various interrelated university links; that is, to the main university or departmental homepages, or to courses and staff list pages. Such links were the standard format across all faculty members’ homepages. Based on this, the university–constructed homepages were typically void of any links that represented individual saliencies. As suggested by Turkle (1995), links symbolise associations and significance for the individual self, and identity is constructed and legitimised by those associations. Therefore, to implicitly or explicitly prohibit links that are personal to the academic and that can provide the social loci necessary for construction, the institution simultaneously prohibits any identity reconstruction, generating a field of disempowered nonentities. Withholding this empowerment in turn prevents the academic from changing their discursive position, and the page thus signifies a product of the university.

It is apparent to the researcher that the institution merely constructs these nonentities in the model that is ideologically suited in order to promote the institution. Academics are thus denied any autonomous subjectivity construction, and yield to the constructed display items in the university electronic window. This was largely observed by the legitimating university logo that headed all of the Web pages or the copyright symbol that concluded some of the homepages studied, signifying the ownership the university Web site possesses over their constructed nonentities. To illustrate this ownership of academic selves, a randomly selected homepage from the eight that were observed is discussed in more detail below.

Case study 1: pseudonym JP

What is particularly noticeable about JP’s homepage is that institutional and departmental names and logos are the predominant features of the entire page, much like a hallmark to brand the site and ultimately its contents. Given these symbols of ownership, in conjunction with the observation that the departmental Webmaster created and maintains the page, it is understood that the university accepts responsibility for the homepage and the identity that is created within (Foucault, 1977). The author of the homepage is thus the university, whose function is to classify expertise through this object of appropriation. To put more simply, the university possesses ownership of the homepage and hence owns the identity that it constructs in which symbols of expertise is signified. Based on this interpretation, the institution not only presents subtle governance through the rhetorical device of the university server (Aycock, 1995), but the branded homepages merely reinforces the ownership and hence governance over JP and consequently marginalising staff (Hawisher and Sullivan, 1999; Hess, 2002).

JP is identified as being further marginalised through the lack of idiosyncratic details presented on her homepage. The homepage includes no more information than is necessary to promote the university (Hess, 2002), such as educational history, professional posts held and holding, and a list of publications (which are common, see Kretschmer and Aguillo, 2004). No evidence of personal information or any links to imply personal saliencies are available, which when referring to Turkle (1995) and Miller (1995) suggests no construction of a personal self. The only links presented to the visitor are those that are standard throughout the staff homepages; that is, links to the university home, courses, contacts and other staff. From this, the homepage merely advertises the university’s identity as an institution of expertise (Hess, 2002). With further deduction from this, it is apparent to the researcher that where the Internet is often assumed to provide unrestricted gateways to others (Gergen, 2001), the institutional ethical governance prohibits the wanderings of flexible selves (Foucault, 1986; Turkle, 1995).

Much like Brown’s (1996) nomadic subjects and Hess’s (2002) observation of a uniform academic self, JP is regarded as simply another academic whose identity merely reflects the ideology of the current university. The absence of links and the homogeneous construction of the self are very much typical characteristics of the remaining seven academics whose homepages were explored. Owing to this, and that the homepage is less of a locus for the cyberself (Miller, 1995) but more of a portal for university promotion, the constructed self appears to be that of the institution and not of the academic; the multifaceted selves found from links from a homepage refer more to the departments and faculties of the university, rather than aspects of the academics’ selves. From this, the identities of JP and other academics whose homepages were classified as university–constructed have been reconstructed as Nonentities, where the term ‘personal homepage’ is clearly inapplicable owing to the loss of any personal identity.

Capitulator

Academics whose homepages have been self–constructed seem to the researcher to have more multifaceted subjectivities on the Web, reconstructing the self at every presented link. However, it is considered that the typical link back to the university Web site simply demonstrates the academics’ willingness to surrender their power for self–construction, and legitimate the governance of the university.

The self–constructed homepages that were observed were very dissimilar to the university–constructed homepages in various ways. The authors were able to demonstrate their different selves through the different pages of their Web site. Each page is interpreted as signifiers of other selves, whether a humorous self or a computer game player self. Each page tends to reconstruct the subjectivities through the inclusion of links to other people and/or places on the Web. The animations, various photographs in different contexts, and the personal manner of addressing visitors create a different self to the typical university–constructed academic — the self–constructed identities were idiosyncratic. However, they did not appear to be independent of the pre–constructed academic self, as they themselves acknowledge their academic self as members of a virtual community that is labelled as the university/department faculty.

Although very much a construction of multiple selves via different links, the predominant subjectivity that initially greets visitors is the academic self. Usually, this academic self would refer to the university to which they belonged through the use of symbols and text. By a process of normalisation then, the academics are understood to adopt the university as a means of self–presentation and validation as an academic. However, by simply accepting this and insinuating this on their Web pages, the academics merely legitimise the power of the university. In this sense, the academic alters their constructed discursive positions and simply relegates, losing their identities as a non–academic and an academic to the all–governing institution. Using a second case study to illustrate this understanding, it is clear to the researcher that the academic internalises the university status as a manifestation of expertise, and by simply demonstrating this rationality on his/her personal homepage simultaneously legitimises the university’s status, ideologies and governance.

Case study 2: pseudonym SB

SB’s homepage typically comprises of several pages of self–presentation (Foster, 1997). Each link and element of bricolage (Chandler and Roberts–Young, 1998) demonstrates a personally salient aspect of the Web, which aids in the reconstruction of SB (Erickson, 1996). However, in accordance with the view that institutions can subtly enforce coercive power over employees and alike (Foucault, 1986), SB ensures that much of what is constructed is his academic self and most aspects of the homepage are directly related to the university to which he belongs. Specifically, heading each page of the Web site is a university logo (which is not an activated hyperlink incidentally) and his name and job title. To further reinforce the researcher’s speculations, SB merely demonstrates his acceptance of the university as a sign of expertise and thus as a keen tool for self–presentation through his persistence to make reference to the university. For example, SB includes lists of academic activities previously and presently engaged in, a short academic biography, and detailed descriptions of his research; all of which have been linked to relevant sites such as the university and departmental homepages.

Despite the homepage predominantly representing an academic self, SB does include one page that conveys a more personal self with a list of activities outside of academia and information regarding his engagement. From this, although demonstrating his autonomy on the Internet to construct his self through discourse and external links (Turkle, 1995), SB is simultaneously relegating this autonomy by his compulsive linking and citing material to the university. As a further signifier of having undergone the process of normalisation (Lynch, 1985), SB includes a long list of publications. This not only constructs SB as a professed academic, but also illustrates the degree of research activity undertaken in the university and thus adds to the power and expertise of the institution. Given this, using the university as a means of self–advertisement not solely mutually advertises the university but also justifiably reinforces the institution as a symbol of powerful governance over individuals like SB.

From the discursive narratives discussed, the researcher concludes that in either circumstance — whether the university constructs the academics’ homepages or whether the individual academic constructs their own homepage — the subjectivities are very much lost to the university ideology in both cases. However, it is clear that whilst on the one hand identity has been lost to direct governance, in the latter condition identity construction has been abdicated by the internalised assumption that the university is a signifier of expertise to which the individual belongs. Based on this, the academic links (and references) to the university/departments to legitimise their presentation of the self and in turn capitulates their identity as nothing more than a product of the university — a nonentity, whilst simultaneously legitimising this coercive power of the university.

Whilst drawing upon this conclusion, the study also investigated a relatively small selection of homepages that were a combination of the two homepages looked at already; that is, personal homepages that have been constructed and maintained by the academic yet reside on the university server. It is understood that in comparison to the remaining types of homepages, the university still appears to possess some coercive power over the constructed identities of the academics, and in doing so constructs these identities in concordance to the prevailing institutional ideology via ownership, normalisation and disempowerment. Specifically, although these ‘sycophants’ seemingly possess no restrictions much like the self–constructed homepages analysed previously, such academics incessantly associate themselves predominantly with the university and departmental communities in similar ways to how the identities of academics via university–constructed homepages are constructed. Put more simply, the constructed identities of these academics have the same degree of power over subjectivity construction as the capitulators, but share greater likeness with the nonentities.

Sycophant

Of the four homepages studied that were self–maintained on the university site, it is rationalised that such identities are constructed as being socially accountable to the university ideology despite having full control to compose the homepages and the identities that reside in it. There is some evidence of rebellion against the ideology in subtle ways, however overall these homepages signify to the researcher that the constructed cyberselves are little more than reflections of the university creed.

In concordance with the view the Internet represents a tool for surveillance and hence coercion (Brignall, 2002), these homepages signify how academics seem to be morally obliged to link to the university and departmental sites, and to adhere to the expected customary academic homepage. Essentially, whilst there is some degree of discretion on behalf of the academic such as links to friends and colleagues, the homepages tend to relay usual scholarly credentials such as academic status, qualifications and experiences, research and other profiles alike (Miller, 1995). From this observation, it is interpreted that such academics represent their selves in the ‘expected’ fashion that constitutes the status of a responsible citizen of the virtual community (to which they link as well as on which their homepages reside). In agreement with Shotter’s (1984) concept of social accountability, the researcher assumes that the discursive position that the academics occupy symbolises their self–policing of subjectivities to satisfy the objectives of the university (Chandler and Roberts–Young, 1998; Cruikshank, 1999).

Although the identities in these homepages tend to adhere to the socially–tainted academic self, the academics do illustrate subtle forms of resistance (c.f. Foucault, 1982). It is interpreted that this rebellion is acknowledged as a form of non–conformity to the individual academic, and so results in their preference not to include a photograph of themselves (with one exception; see case study three below). Whilst the nonentities were confined to small head and shoulder portraits, and capitulators used such visuals more freely, the focal academics do not disclose any visual identity. Similarly, whilst nonentities have their pre–constructed academic identity copyrighted to the university and capitulators tend to have their constructed identities copyrighted to themselves, the subjectivities of the sycophants have no declared owner. This lack of ownership and process of normalisation will now be looked at in more detail with reference to the third case study.

Case study 3: pseudonym DT

Although maintained by DT himself, and thus presumably giving plentiful opportunity to promote oneself in any favourable fashion (Foster, 1997), DT in fact provides visitors with eight pages of academic credentials ranging from qualifications to committee memberships. From this case study, the researcher proposes that the university server upon which the homepage is situated symbolises the allusion of institutional governmentality, from which norms are perceived and adhered to in order to remain a moral citizen of that (virtual) community (Lynch, 1985; c.f. Aycock, 1995). Specifically, whilst the Internet sanctions autonomous self–presentation, DT fails to embrace this owing to the social accountability (Shotter, 1984) he perceives and internalises towards the university department, ensuring that any persons surveying the Web site will have no cause to problematise the site as contrasting with the conveyed prevailing norms (see Foucault, 1986).

Given the rhetorical device that instates the university’s coercive governance, DT polices his own reconstruction of the self in the manner that matches the ideology of the university and thus reflects its ritualistic objectives; that is, advertisement. Thus two pages of the Web site have been dedicated to publication lists of journal articles, co-authored and authored books/chapters (Harley, 2002). Additionally, the site includes a page solely to disclose information regarding national and international research projects in which DT is occupied. Given these examples, it is understood that the homepage has been designed and is maintained in a socially–tainted way in order to fulfil the standards of being associated with the university, and thus provides information about this constructed self that gives way for exploitation to promote the university and its department (Hess, 2002).

It is interesting that whilst DT is understood to have accepted the ideological norms of the university, he nevertheless occasionally demonstrates a degree of resistance towards these imposed norms. For example, whilst university–constructed homepages were void of any personal links that would identify the academic as having individual selves, DT has included several of these links on his homepage albeit university/research related. Such links include societal and committee Web pages, PhD student homepages, links to full–text articles in the publication list, links to the university and departmental main homepages, and to friends’ homepages (of whom work within the same university department). Thus whilst in acknowledgement that these links are all academically inclined, they do nevertheless signify elements of the constructed self that is individual to DT.

DT does not enclose the customary formal photograph; indeed, there is a single, rather unorthodox photograph of an animal with a somewhat indistinct glimpse of DT identified in the background. The researcher interprets this lack of visual identity as a means to hide — or at least to obscure — the overtness of his resistance to the norms of the university. However, overall DT does not provide any other self for review; there is no reference to any other interests outside of the academic institution and no links to suggest any other associations. Thus DT and all other homepage authors alike are constructed as Sycophants, signifying the loss of identities to university coercion.

 

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Conclusions

To summarise these subjectivity reconstructions and interpretations, it appears that academics’ personal home pages are clearly a technology of the self (Foucault, 1988); a means of altering an individual’s identities (Berthon, et al., 2000) through external links and other forms of discourse. The interconnected spectrum of institutions, practices and programmes can thus subjectify individuals (Rose, 1996). However, in the case of the academic individuals reviewed here, most fail to become a part of the virtual communities available, and so are subjectified by the only practices they link to; that is, the university. Based on this, academics’ personal home pages seem to be a tool for governing the identity construction of universities’ academics. It could be argued that this may not solely be applicable to universities, but for many other institutions wishing their employees to become normalised as superior, powerful and ethically viable.

Given that academics’ identities are subordinated to the university it is logical to ask why this occurs and whether this is an issue. To do this we step out of a Foucauldian framework. From an organisational analysis perspective organisations (whether businesses, religions or clubs) create norms of behaviour and pressure to conform. In this sense, conforming should not necessarily have negative connotations and is a natural human activity. Humans typically confirm in the conscious or subconscious hope of gaining tangible or intangible rewards. The degree to which we conform depends upon organisational factors such as the degree of mutual dependence: the extent to which individuals are dependent upon other to reach their goals (Whitley, 1984). Mutual dependence is very variable in universities (Fuchs, 1992), so it is perhaps surprising that we found no mavericks in our sample, particularly from the humanities and social sciences. An explanation could be that high mutual dependency subjects (hard sciences, psychology) publish online much more than low mutual dependency subjects (social sciences, humanities) (Tang and Thelwall, 2003).

Does it matter than academics’ personal pages tend to be ‘professional’ hiding their other selves? The answer to this question depends upon the perspective from which the question was asked. For an individual academic self–seeking satisfaction through career advancement or group membership, the answer would presumably tend to be ‘no’. For creative selves needing more personal expression linked to work, the answer might be ‘yes’ (of course, these selves could reside within a single person). From an educational perspective, the answer is probably discipline–specific and partly tied to the academic’s teaching style. For example, the personal may be important in gender studies but is denied in physics (Knorr–Cetina, 1999). From a social perspective, the presentation of academics as de–humanised guardians of knowledge has clear political implications. Perhaps the ultimate answer lies in whether there will be resistance. In the future, will the publishing of professional personal academic pages be unchallenged and accepted, or will there be a significant movement against it? Perhaps the deciding factor is pragmatism: are personal Web presences important enough to create a fuss about? Humans have to blackbox ideas and actions in order to function effectively, opening the box when external factors question the efficacy of the box. The final issue, then, is if, and when, academic Web presences become important enough relative to other issues to be worth challenging. End of article

 

About the authors

Lesley Thoms is at the School of Computing and Information Technology, University of Wolverhampton (U.K.).

Mike Thelwall is a professor of information science and head of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group in the School of Computing and Information Technology, University of Wolverhampton, U.K.
E–mail: : m [dot] thelwall [at] wlv [dot] ac [dot] uk

 

Acknowledgements

The work was supported by a grant from the Common Basis for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators part of the Improving Human Research Potential specific programme of the Fifth Framework for Research and Technological Development of the European Commission. It is part of the WISER project (Web indicators for scientific, technological and innovation research, contract HPV2–CT–2002–00015, www.webindicators.org).

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 11 April 2005; accepted 20 November 2005.


Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, Lesley Thoms and Mike Thelwall

Academic home pages: Reconstruction of the self by Lesley Thoms and Mike Thelwall
First Monday, volume 10, number 12 (December 2005),
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1302/1222





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